Off The Beaten Path

Off The Beaten Path

By Leni
Author's Notes

He ran out of words five minutes into their interview. Buffy wasn't looking for comfort, or consolation, or another promise that he'd be there for her. Buffy wanted to give him proof that she'd come back, that her voice over the phone hadn't been a mirage - a description of his reaction was optional.

"This is growing maudlin', even for us. I'm alive! We should celebrate." She smiled, presumably at him. Then she pointed at the sports bag on the table between them, zipped it open enough that he glimpsed a bunch of crossbow bolts before the waitress walked past them and Buffy closed it again. "I heard about some odd deaths while I was waiting. You game for some old-fashioned patrol?"

The smile didn't convince him. Neither did the bright tone. Where was the shock, the fear of darkness, that first breath of fresh air in lungs that'd been rotting for months?

"You're staring."

So he was.

Her smile was still in place, and he read in it the one unsaid sentence that'd never been aimed at him: Don't ask, for I will not answer. He was tempted to look away, scream that she was being unfair. Then he realized he'd left so she could confide in someone else.

He didn't want to analyze why he'd driven down onto a forgotten road, in a forgotten town, so far from both Sunnydale and L.A. By next morning everybody who might have seen them, would have forgotten. How like them, the only trace they leave stays in their hearts.

"Come on, Angel. For old time's sake."

He had no grounds to refuse her. Not a request this small. "I'm taking the crossbow."

Patrolling with Buffy was like coming back to a movie he had started watching, put back on the shelf, but was able to pick up again as soon as he hit the play button. Even if the setting was different, even if she was different and they would never be the same. Even then, he followed the script without needing to consult the writing.

They walked down the main street, brushing up against small families and rushing kids and enamored couples who would rather bump into a stranger than look up from each other. "Next time, we're meeting in the desert," Buffy said as she barely saved her foot from a bike that raced in the opposite direction.

Angel nodded. One more second, and he'd have pulled her away.

The last time they'd touched, it'd been in anger.

The time before that…. "There's no ice cream in the desert."

Buffy cocked an eyebrow. "You buying?"

He allowed a small smile in response, and pretended that the happy gleam in her eyes went beyond the surface.

"No time tonight. Not if the rumors are true." She kept walking forward, heavy steps on the pavement. He glanced down for the first time and finds white sneakers, the tips smudged with old mud. A parade of tip-tapping little shows crossed his mind, high heels and sandals, edged in sequins or with a cute little bow at the front. Back in Sunnydale, he'd never seen a pair of sneakers unless she hadn't expected to meet him.

Funny. When he chose to step aside, let someone else win her heart, he never considered he'd be demoted to just another friend.

"Feel that?"

He snapped out of the vision of the red pair of shoes she'd worn for their second date (the coffee shop on Main. a shy smile.. a trace of Willow in the air; the girl had scurried away when she caught sight of him, after making sure her friend wouldn't be stood up.) "Vampire."

This town wasn't Sunnydale. Demon activity was low by comparison. But the lure of the Hellmouth worked despite the distance, so this was close to paradise for those demons ensnared by the supernatural pull but smart enough to keep their business away from the Slayer's reach.

It was easy to slip into old routines, easy to fight while keeping an eye out for her, easy to be of aid without stepping into her fighting range, and easy to trust that she had his back.

It was easy to remember why he'd stayed in love with her long after he realized he was condemning both of them with that love.

Their relationship during those last months in Sunnydale had been so messed up that any loving kisses or sweet words had progressively retreated into daydreams and hopes. They'd grown shy about closeness, about touch. But one thing had never failed: hunting together, two predators stalking their prey across town - that was the comfort love failed to provide. That was their safety, their oasis of normality. He could be her equal. Not her hero, not her rescuer, not the person Cordelia, Gunn, Wesley and Fred counted on to save the world. He had been able to be just Angel, a dependable partner instead of the awkward boyfriend. To know that Buffy had still trusted him on the battlefield, that she was more attuned to him than she'd ever been with Kendra or Faith. That certainty had been the most satisfying feeling since the night she'd fallen asleep in his arms. So close to happiness that he'd run from Sunnydale, and gotten as far as two hours away….

"Angel! Duck!"

The stake flew over his crouched form, embedding itself in the chest of the fourth vampire that'd crossed their path. Angel watched the stranger disintegrate, saw the surprise turn into shock turn into hate as the man turned his eyes on Buffy. Had he looked at her so, when he'd lost his soul? He shook his head. He hadn't wondered that in months; he didn't need to start tonight.

"You were distracted."

She sounded so matter-of-fact. Time was, she'd have said that with a petulant tone, adding a mock glare to make sure he felt properly chastised. Time was, a part of him had hoped she'd grow up already.

"You've grown stronger." And colder. And sadder.

And lonelier.

Maybe that was why they'd complemented each other so well, back in their happier months. Deep down, they were the same. When he'd still been human, he'd possessed a relaxed carefree attitude. Since she'd been dead, Buffy had come in touch with the bitterest pieces of herself.

Perfect soulmates. Perfect happiness leading into perfect despair.

How poetic.

He stopped brushing at invisible dust from his jacket and found Buffy staring at him, a ghost of a smile on her lips.

"Somehow, I don't think that was a compliment." She turned around and called to him over her shoulder. "But I'll take it. I kinda have to. It's the sweetest thing you've said to me all night. Even Xander said I looked radiant this morning."

He couldn't help the incredulity showing.

Buffy laughed. "Best friends lie to each other, Angel." There was something there. It should have been a light joke. It wasn't. "And they never let you wear black to your own funeral. Too tacky, you know?"

"I think it's elegant." He wanted to touch her. Comfort. Console. Those were still his first instincts when it came to her. Instead he picked up a stake from the ground and threw it at her. "You can't go wrong with black. Look at me - a century in this continent and I still have to change the jacket."

"Was that a joke?" At least now she sounded truly amused. "You've grown a sense of humor. And it isn't that bad."

"Are you lying to me?" He was still smirking.

She pocketed the stake, wouldn't meet his gaze. "Are we best friends?"

He should have taken a second to think over his answer. "No." They'd been more. They'd been less. They'd been everything but.

"Good." That was relief. "That's good to hear."

Angel thought he understood - those hurtful memories were still their memories. They weren't alone; on good days he could bring up a night at the Bronze, dancing with her, five songs in a row while Xander grumbled and huffed three yards away. Or an afternoon at his apartment, with Buffy stretched on his bed while she read her Lit assignment aloud so he could make corrections. Or….

"Thanks for telling me the truth. I'm getting sick of sugarcoating, you know?"

He didn't understand her anymore. Where was his girl now? Pretending it hadn't been almost two years since they'd last seen each other. As eager to talk about her return from death as he was to bring up how deeply he'd mourned her. When he'd asked her to be his girl, he should have remembered that she'd grow into a woman. Angel wondered how she'd react if he demanded that she brought back the girl he'd fallen in love with. "Where to, now?" he asked instead.

Because love shouldn't be a concept between them anymore.

That he followed her without question was not a concept; it was a fact. That she never looked back to check that he was still there didn't speak of love, either. He suspected it was an old habit.

Could love be a habit?

Should it be?

She stopped, turned around and pointed at the rectangular sign across the street. Big, block letters in unrelenting black with a gray background.

A cemetery.

It didn't matter that they'd never been to this town, and probably never would again. Of course they ended up in a cemetery.

Buffy ran ahead without warning, jumped high in the air.

He was a second behind, landing next to her on the other side of the gate.

"Have you ever noticed the strong ones bring their prey to a graveyard to eat them?"

"Small town mentality." At her look, he elaborated, "In L.A., they take their victims to their lawyer's."

She rolled her eyes, enough to imply that his jokes could still be that bad. "I think it's because of all the quiet. The dead don't speak - not even I did. A record, I know." A whole summer without talking. Angel had remembered her voice the most - a whisper, a scream, a laugh. A whole summer of silence. He knew that there would never be words enough to fill that hole. "Anyone wants some peace at lunch. Out there it's so chaotic. Humans never shut up." He raised an eyebrow. She shrugged sheepishly. "I have an excuse now."

She did. A whole summer of excuses.

He fell into pace at her side. Fisted his hand when he realized it'd been straying to hold hers. "Have you considered that the demons themselves might be too loud?"

She tilted her head, a soft curve on her lips as she thought it over. It was the closest thing to a real smile he'd seen all night. "Ew," she exclaimed when she realized his meaning. "I guess it makes sense… crunchy bones and suburbs do not mix, but… ew!" She laced her hands together at her front. He tried not to read anything in that gesture. "Anyway, I always find an extra demon at Restfield - usually behind that giant mausoleum with the German names and the carved sword at the gate, remember?"

Angel nodded, a bit distracted by an unexpected flashback to a heated kiss against that same mausoleum.

Her eyes narrowed, and she took out a stake. "Let's hope the home demons are as accommodating."

It was ten minutes before he caught his first sign that they had company. Buffy was still unaware of the exact source, though he could tell that she's leading them unerringly in the right direction. Then he heard a low growl, and put a hand on her shoulder. "It's big," he whispered, and she nodded. She might be the Slayer, stronger and faster than him, but a vampire's acute senses were an advantage she could only dream about. "Over there. Thirty yards away."

Buffy sprinted forward, and he followed suit. It felt so natural to keep up with her, how easily he found his spot next to her behind a memorial wall. Did she also miss how well they fit in battle? Did she ever remember the rush of knowing you were helped by people who could take care of themselves? Did she? Because he missed her, damn it.

He turned to her - "Do you ever…?" - and didn't bother to finish the question.

She had been thinking nothing of the sort.

Moonlight highlighted her features as she considered the enemy. Her face was a mixture of joy and eager energy, with an edge of wistfulness around the wide grin. She looked like Faith, Angel thought, and shuddered the wariness away. A second later the illusion was thankfully gone. "Buffy?"

She was biting her lower lip. "It is big," she whispered back, tapping her stake against the granite.

"An adult Keow." Even bent over his victim, the demon towered at least three feet over him. Angel observed the thick scales covering the visible parts of the wide body, and made a mental note to avoid the long sharp claws currently shredding the demon's dinner. "Tricky."

Meanwhile, Buffy looked just like Cordelia would if she'd been given unlimited access to his credit card. "Just what the doctor ordered."

Maybe this was how she should always look, excited about the coming fight and ready to make the most of it. But something was still bothering him, and he didn't have time to analyze it as she raced toward the demon.

"The question is, is it big enough?" Angel heard her sing-song before she kicked its side.

He made to protest. He'd spotted the demon first, therefore he'd earned the right to the first attack. "Don't be an idiot," he muttered to himself instead. Those were L.A. rules, made for those nights the guys came with him on patrol. They'd seldom track a demon before him, and it was safer that way.

Buffy had never been interested in 'safe' unless it involved other people's safety.

How could he have forgotten her impulsive actions? How many times had he told her that, no matter how good they were, she needed to share her plans before jumping into action?

With a curse, Angel left their cover and rushed after her, wondering why this felt so different when he'd done it a hundred times before. Something was… wrong. He stopped and looked at the scene before him. That grin, cocky and irreverent. That defiant posture, not a challenge for supremacy but a dare to try his worst to break her - "Dinner's over, pal. Ready to die?" She was close to the demon. Too close. She had grown stronger, but not enough. She was the fastest girl in the world, but if she didn't jump away right now, she'd never avoid the wicked claws aiming straight to her ribcage….

The grin became a smile. The smile, a sigh.

Relief inundated her expression.

Of course.

Angel had fired the crossbow before his mind completed the pieces for the puzzle Buffy had presented today. "Idiot!" He never knew which one he'd been addressing, maybe it was meant for both. Him, for trying to believe she could still be that girl. Her, for having changed so much.

The demon changed directions, heading for what it perceived as the most immediate threat.

Angel slipped into game face, and spared a growl for Buffy before attacking. A fight that should have exhausted him, didn't last three minutes. He'd grown stronger in L.A, but he knew that wasn't the reason he'd sank his hands into the softer parts of the demon's neck and pulled until it tore apart. He was furious, and the real object of his fury was off limits.

The Keow made a suitable replacement.

Buffy threw him a towel from her sports bag. "That was impressive."

"Shut up." He wiped off his face, then his hands and wrists. His jacket was discarded, and he is tempted to toss away the shirt. That would be a bad idea, though. "Just shut up, Buffy."

The corpse was dissolving into gray goo behind them, but neither cared. This had never been about half-heard rumors, was it? Never about old times.

Idiot him, for still believing her, for always believing her.

Idiot her, for lying to the one person who doesn't care for anything except that she stays in this world.

She avoided his gaze as he advanced on her, didn't raise her head even when he stopped a hair's breadth away from her. She let him grab her arm and shake her. She let him, and that made him angrier. "What the hell were you thinking?"

Her expression was vacant now. No sign of the hesitant voice on the phone, or the girl who'd essayed a smile when he entered the small town diner after sundown.

He loosened his grasp, forced his hands to relax as they landed on her shoulders. "Buffy?" There'd been a time when she was everything in his world. He'd trusted her with his life; he'd trusted her beyond any idea of self. She had no right to use him like this. "Was it worth it, Buffy? Was it?"

She tried to pull herself free. Angel didn't budge. Buffy was the Slayer. A real struggle would end with more than a few bruises on both sides. Since she only made another weak attempt and then fell forward against his chest, Angel concluded she didn't want to be released.

Had she ever?

"Damn it, Angel. Damn you." She pulled back enough to punch his shoulder blade. "I thought you'd understand," she yelled at him.

He understood enough not to let go. He grabbed onto her arm, squeezed until she gave a huff and stalked away, pulling him with her.

She guided them back through the graveyard, until they stood before the main gate again. She glanced at it, then at the hand that had trapped her wrist. "I can't jump over with you holding me."

"I'm not letting you go."

"Then we'll stay here."

He shrugged. "Might as well." And pulled her towards him. If she was surprised, she didn't show it. How long since he'd heard her heartbeat, since he'd felt it pounding against his chest?

Tighter still, he held her. "Don't do that again." It didn't matter how far away she was, how many men she learned to love, or how many times he'd let her go all over again. "Don't you dare to do that again."

"What does it matter anyway?" She laughed then, and the sound was sharper than the Keiw's claws. "Willow will just bring me back again."

Had he sounded so defeated last year? Had his friends felt as desperate?

When had he become so useless to her?

A part of Angel was counting her heartbeats. A part of him regretted the bloody spots he was leaving on her clothes. A part of him wished he could follow her to Sunnydale. A part of him argued that taking her to L.A. was the better option. "You'd hate living in a hotel," he sighed as he realized that none of those parts helped the situation.

She chuckled. "Not as much as you'd hate sharing Spike's crypt."

"I'd never…. A crypt?" His lips quirked in amusement. "The boy never had style."

"Hush." Her hand found their spot around his shoulders; her fingers tapped the skin under his collar with a familiar rhythm. "Everybody says he did okay while I was pushing daisies - or, actually, grass. Does nobody plant daisies anymore? Anyway, Spike's been on his best behavior these past weeks. I'm contemplating giving him the benefit of the doubt."

"I doubt he deserves it."

Buffy nuzzled against his chest. "You sound like Xander. Maybe he'd be a better roommate - if you don't mind the ex vengeance demon hovering around."

"I'd rather take Spike." His fingers explored her hair, longer and curlier than he remembered it. "Him, I can stake."

"It doesn't matter, does it?" Her hands moved up his neck to cup his face. He'd left behind a heart-broken girl. Now a scarred woman was searching his gaze, unsurprised by her findings. "You aren't coming with me."

"I'm not," Angel admitted. "If I couldn't tell what you were about to do, after a night together -"

"You always find a way to blame yourself."

"- then I can't help you."

She caressed his cheek. "No, I guess you can't."

He leaned down into the kiss she was offering. The last time he'd kissed her, she'd broken apart in his arms, denying the truth that would swallow their day. The last time she'd kissed him, well, it hadn't been much better.

It was fitting that they'd kiss now, here, so soon after she stepped into Death's arms and he was so blind to the woman she'd become that he'd almost let it happen.

"Are you letting me go?" Buffy murmured at last, breaking the kiss only long enough to breath the words out.

He licked the seam between her lips, brought forth a smile. "Not now."

"Then you're helping me now."

Minutes passed before the kiss came to an end.

Her hands sneaked back around his neck; his settled at the small of her back. Neither made the first move to break the hug, and neither mentioned that it needed to be broken.

Instead he told her about Fred ("She has a crush on you, Angel. Really.") and a dimension where he could walk in the sun ("Maybe one day we'll meet there. I always wished…. Never mind.") and Cordelia could be a real princess ("Finally became royalty, huh? Wait 'til I tell Xander!"). She told him about the looks she'd gotten at the last PTA meeting at Dawn's school, and why couldn't Giles go in her place? ("That'd look even weirder, Buffy.") and the adjustments at home now that Willow and Tara had moved in ("How comes you've got two witches while my seer keeps getting migraines?").

"I know there's more," Buffy said once silence had resettled between them.

He gave her a quizzical look.

"You've -" She made a gesture with her right hand. "- changed. I don't know how to explain it." She passed her hand over his eyes. "It's there. New stuff. Not… very pretty, I'll guess."

"Good guess."

"Great." She offered a relieved smile. "I'm not crazy; you do know what I mean."

Angel trailed his index finger along one of her eyebrows, then the other. "I do."

Buffy smiled wryly. "I don't want to talk about it either."

Maybe not now. But her friends would know when the time was right. The day she was ready to talk, Giles and Willow would be there for her - and Xander, too. "Sounds fair."

She laughed. The same sound he'd heard when she was in high school and he was enamored of her every action. "Figures. Only extreme trauma can make us compromise without an argument. While didn't we try this as a couple?"

"We can be a bit stubborn," he allowed.

The laugh came again, and Angel smiled along. The shadows had been pushed back again; if he didn't know better…. But now he could spot the dark places, he could see how a bitter coating enveloped some sentences, how her touch grew brittle and her body tightened when certain subjects were touched. "Buffy. Promise me."

Her hand fell back to his shoulder, played with the ragged edge of a tear in his shirt. She didn't ask what he was asking for; she didn't need to. "Will would bring me back."

"Buffy."

"Okay."

He heaved a sigh. For a moment he was thrown back to the start of their relationship, when he'd offered to patrol in her place if she promised to use that time to study for a Chemistry test. It'd taken him fifteen minutes until he had the words, but she'd gotten a B+. "Okay… what?"

The glare she gave him belonged to that aggravated high school girl, too. "I promise, all right? Geez. A girl can't have a brush with death anymore," Buffy groaned, again the upbeat girl that'd met him at the diner. Green eyes pleaded that he pretend with her.

Why not? Being with her had always included pretending. "Just stop fighting hellgods without giving me a call," he told her.

"You'd have left to rescue Cordy before my message had gotten through," she reminded him with a smile. Then she raised her hands to comb through his hair. "If we didn't love each other, would it be harder or easier?" Before Angel could answer, she got to her tiptoes for a light kiss. Only a second's worth, and then she was on her feet again. "I never want to find out, Angel."

It was his turn to laugh. "You won't." Love, he'd discovered lately, wasn't a sweet cuddly cupid. It was a rabid beast, with deep hooks into his feelings and thoughts. It didn't care about duty, it laughed at distance, and it showed its teeth at any reminder of a dooming curse. Love, true love, was a close cousin to insanity and obsession's long lost twin; it didn't have the courtesy of dying out in the absence of hope, neither the sense to escape before threat of isolation. Love didn't care if you shoved it to a corner of your heart; it nested there, infested the area and kidnapped any stray thought with the barest relation to it.

Love was dangerous.

How fitting that they did love each other, then.

"It doesn't matter where we are or what we are doing; we'll be back here as soon as the other asks."

It was an oath. A threat. Buffy smiled, bliss suffusing her features for a moment, before she looked away. "And if we don't ask?"

"Then we'll be furious at not being called and swear we'll forget such madness."

"But we'll never forget."

She'd never understand if he laughed at her choice of words. How many times had he wished the Oracles had also wiped that day from his memory? "Not a single slice of this reality." Angel took her hands and forced himself not to avert his eyes. "Everything will work out, Buffy."

Who was he to tell her otherwise? He'd sunk even deeper, and he felt his life was finally gaining safe shores.

Buffy disengaged her hands from his and traced the tears that peppered his shirt. Many of them were bloody, and she didn't shy from those areas, sometimes brushing against tender skin that was still healing. She reached the top button and laid her palm against his chest. "The only reason you're alive, is because your heart doesn't beat."

"I'd do it again. Protecting you was my only job description once, remember?"

"So you used to say." She tapped his chest, her eyes fixed to that spot as each pat coincided with her own heartbeat. "I'm still not sure, though." Tap. Tap. "Did I fire you?" Tap. "Or did you quit?"

Both. Neither. Add a cruel clause, months of mental torture, a visit to hell, and the fact that the high school girl was becoming a woman and she deserved a shot at a better life. "All that matters is that we carried on with our lives."

Tap.

"Right…." She shook her head as her hand slowly retreated. "I'd forgotten how sweet you could be. Now is when you say that the straw on my hair doesn't look that bad."

A vampire's memories lasted for centuries. He still relived the years spent with Darla, Drusilla and Spike, so many lifetimes ago. Nights spent at the Bronze three years ago were crystal clear in his mind. "It doesn't." He pulled some stray twigs of grass, tossed them behind him. "What do you want me to tell you, Buffy? That everything went wrong, that life isn't what we dreamed it to be?"

"Life's a bitch, and then we die." Buffy lifted one shoulder. "And then we get thrown back into it. No big news there - and don't say it'll get better," she added when he opened his mouth. "Tell me something that makes it better."

Angel stared at her for a long moment, then took her hand and lifted it to kiss her palm. "There are twenty-five big sales scheduled for the next month in the city." At her look, he chuckled, never letting go of her hand. "Cordelia taped the list on the lobby's wall. We're not to call her unless the world is ending, and then only if she's had a pertinent vision."

"Now that sounds more like Cordy." Buffy laughed. "Pity one of us wouldn't leave the mall if we went together."

"She's matured," he told her seriously.

Buffy arched an eyebrow. "Enough to let me walk away with the better pair of shoes?" The answer was obvious in his expression. "Thought so. What else have you got, Mr. Optimism."

"Would it be enough to say that I love you?"

"Not anymore."

"And that I don't think I'll ever stop."

"Closer." Buffy closed the space between them again, leaned her forehead on his chest. "Love is the one thing I'll never be able to slay." She hugged him tighter when his chin came to rest against her hair. "It's okay. It keeps me company on cold days. Just don't be mad when the truce is broken and I try to tear it out; it's not as if I'll manage it."

Been there, spent months on that - failed as miserably as she was predicting. He didn't say that, though. Some things, Angel never wanted to explain to her. "It will work out, Buffy."

"Sweet, sweeter, sweetest. You shouldn't. I'm really tired of sugarcoating."

He'd been a liar since birth. He'd been a liar through all his incarnations. Centuries of half-truths and ill-intentioned seductions and manipulation. Only for Buffy he'd ever been transparent enough that she could tell the truth at a look. "You're the only one who's ever called me a terrible liar."

"Seriously?" She chuckled. "Then they don't know you well enough." Angel dropped a kiss on her crown, gave her time to examine his words.

"Oh." She relaxed further into the embrace. "I love you, too."

The End

Feed Leni
Visit Leni

Author's Notes:
Rating: PG
Summary: The Meeting. Yes, THAT Meeting. Set in early BtVS6/AtS3.
Disclaimer: All bow to Joss.
Thank you: To Ares for the beta. :)
Notes: This was supposed to be the third snapshot for
Lie To Me years ago. When I started typing it yesterday, it decided to grow fangs. And a tail. And then it kept me awake until 4:00 am - *yawns* Blame the wonkiness on the late hour. The second half was inspired by: La distancia no es cuánto nos separemos. La distancia es si no volvemos. (Distance isn’t how far we drift apart. Distance is if we don’t come back.)

Home Today's Story2005 Archive2006 Archive2007 Archive2007 ArchiveContact